Bwana Devil, the world’s first fea­ture­length three-di­men­sional film, springs to life in Hol­ly­wood’s cin­e­mas

History Revealed - - TIME CAPSULE NOVEMBER -

As the cur­tains opened, the ex­cited au­di­ence at Hol­ly­wood’s Para­mount Theatre donned the strange card­board glasses they had been given. They were about to wit­ness movie his­tory be­ing made with the pre­miere of the first ful­l­length, full-colour, 3D pic­ture: Bwana Devil.

In the pre­vi­ous decade, the num­ber of cin­ema­go­ers had dropped mas­sively, and the in­dus­try was look­ing for a way to re­vi­talise it­self. They say video killed the ra­dio star, but it was tele­vi­sion that stole Hol­ly­wood’s thun­der in the late 1940s. The movies had to of­fer some­thing the viewer couldn’t get at home – and screen­writer Mil­ton Gun­zburg thought he might have the an­swer.


Team­ing up with his brother Ju­lian, an oph­thal­mol­o­gist, he cre­ated a new 3D sys­tem that could re­al­is­ti­cally be used in movie theatres across the USA: Nat­u­ral Vi­sion. It used a com­bi­na­tion of coloured fil­ters and Po­laroid tech­nol­ogy to achieve the de­sired, eer­ily life-like ef­fect. After a few un­suc­cess­ful pitches to big film companies, Gun­zburg struck gold when a ra­dio pro­ducer, Arch Oboler, was wowed by their in­no­va­tion. He de­cided to in­cor­po­rate it into his next film pro­ject, Bwana Devil.

Set in the African sa­van­nah (but filmed on the cheap in the Santa Mon­ica Mountains), the film told the story of a man put in charge of build­ing a rail­way in Uganda, whose work­force in­creas­ingly falls prey to a pair of man-eat­ing lions. See­ing no other op­tion, he de­cides to take on the pesky preda­tors him­self.

Be­fore the movie pre­miered, it came with a short that ex­plained how Gun­zburg’s 3D in­ven­tion worked. Ac­cord­ing to crit­ics, the film it­self was noth­ing to write home about. One scathingly wrote that it was the “worst movie” they could think of, and com­plained of headaches after watch­ing it. But au­di­ences loved it. Peo­ple queued around the block to ex­pe­ri­ence 3D for them­selves, and Bwana Devil made mil­lions of dol­lars at the box of­fice.

See­ing its suc­cess, ma­jor stu­dios quickly jumped on the 3D band­wagon. Warner Brothers chose to use Nat­u­ral Vi­sion for the hor­ror movie House of Wax, which was billed as the first 3D pic­ture re­leased by a ma­jor stu­dio, and oth­ers fol­lowed suit. The 20th-cen­tury craze for 3D movies had been born.

“It is the worst movie in my rather fal­ter­ing mem­ory, and my hang­over from it was so painful that I im­me­di­ately went to see a twodi­men­sional movie for re­lief” Hol­lis Alpert of the Saturday Re­view

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